Around 100 humid kilometers north of Bangkok is the bridge made famous by the film The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Kanchanaburi is the site of the Burma-Siam Railway Bridge built by prisoners of the Japanese in World War 2 under forced labour conditions. Today’s idyllic tropical setting (and even the movie) belies the appalling privations, random punishments, disease, meagre food and atrocities along with the withering humidity and searing heat suffered by the bridge builders. The toll was so large – over 12,000 prisoners of war and around 90,000 Burmese, Thai, Malay and Indonesian forced labourers lost their lives in construction of the railroad – that it became known as the Death Railway.
An excellent and busy tourist train (on weekends only) takes a scenic three hours aimed more at Thais than foreign visitors stopping near the famous bridge. The train nervously slows a couple of times on its journey to a snail’s pace to traverse old and rickety wooden bridges held up more by divine intervention than any expertise in engineering.
The train stops near the famed bridge where the passengers stroll the steel and wooden structure kept immaculate for all the visitors (only the outer spans are original as most was destroyed by bombing raids). Trains chuff across the bridge at regular intervals while the tourist train continues over the bridge to its terminus at Nam Tok with its scenic waterfall.
The gently running placid river and quiet setting give little feeling of the toil and hardship that went into building this key railway link and the plain dark steel arches lack character. Unsurprisingly, it is not the bridge used in the movie, which was fully shot on location in Sri Lanka!!
Nearby is the slightly disappointing JEATH Museum, its unusual name being an acronym of the various nations involved with the bridge (Japan, England, Australia / America, Thailand and Holland). Run by the local monks, there are some moving pictures, sketches and newspaper clippings shown in a cramped humid dingy bamboo hut to resemble the accommodation of the prisoners. Many of the exhibits are masked in plastic to prevent damage from the moisture and so are difficult to read or view properly in the poor light.
The bridge only became famous with the success of the movie. Ironically, for its grand title, the bridge doesn’t actually cross the Kwai but rather the Mae Klong (klong is canal in Thai). The Mae Klong runs into the confluence of the Khwae Yai and Khwae Noi Rivers (literally the big and little Khwae).
Under the mesmerising spell of popular cinema and sensing a tourism opportunity , the local authorities quietly renamed the relevant short section of Mae Klong to the Khwae Yai River, ensuring that there is a Bridge Over the River Kwai for all to visit and enjoy.
Despite its checkered history, the rail journey from Bangkok, the bridge and surrounding area are worthy of a visit, though the undoubted highlight is a short walk up the road to the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.
The outstanding railway site Seat 61, has a detailed description on the River Kwai rail journey.